- Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom by Elisabeth R. Anker
Elisabeth R. Anker’s Orgies of Feeling provides an original and important account of the “War on Terror,” highlighting the central role that a “melodramatic political discourse” has played in generating support for U.S. imperialism by “legitimating violent and intrusive governing and corporate powers as a moral imperative for the practice of sovereign freedom” in the post-9/11 era (19). Anker deftly politicizes the melodramatic genre, wrenching it from its literary and cultural roots and situating it as a defining feature of post-9/11 American affective life and domestic and foreign governance. According to Anker, a new melodramatic political discourse that figures the “other” (Muslims and Arabs most explicitly) as utterly evil and threatening, while casting Americans as virtuous and innocent, has become a legitimizing narrative for violent and anti-democratic state action, both foreign and domestic. In making these claims, Anker draws on a theoretical archive that includes Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Weber, and Foucault, as well as contemporary cultural and political thinkers, such as Lauren Berlant and Wendy Brown. The result is a provocative and highly readable account of what freedom means in a U.S. empire characterized by militarization, mass incarceration, surveillance, inequality, and financial precarity.
Anker argues persuasively that due to the historic prevalence of melodrama as an American cultural and literary form (in films such as Birth of a Nation, The Terminator, Three Kings, Saving Private Ryan), the American public has been tuned into its easily accessible binary of good vs. evil, us vs. them. Melodrama, she suggests, has a broad appeal and works in powerful ways to render complicated contemporary geopolitics into simple and easy to understand issues. In the post-9/11 era, this appeal has helped melodrama become the central affective and political narrative, justifying and garnering support for the most brutal forms of state violence, both at home and abroad, including, for instance, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rise of the punishing and surveillance state. The most salient and formative example of a new melodramatic political discourse, Anker argues, is President Bush’s comments following the attacks on the Twin Towers, which described American freedom being attacked by “cowards” and called for its defense. Such comments, Anker contends, constitute “a precise expression of the promises that melodramatic political discourses offer the unjustly injured nation: virtuous victims can gain back their sovereignty from anti-American forces by feats of heroic might” (10).
Perhaps the most significant and, indeed, provocative thesis of the book is that dramatic increases in violent, anti-democratic and unilateral state power have not been about the need for more security, but rather, about a desire to reclaim freedom in a moment that, as Anker rightly insists, is marred by political, economic, and affective “unfreedom” (15-20; 187-95). This is a radical departure from recent political analyses, which tend to claim that America has either traded or sacrificed freedom for a more robust model of security. Anker turns this logic on its head and argues instead that security has become secondary to a new militarized form of individual [End Page 537] and sovereign freedom. According to Anker, “[t]he melodramatic story of 9/11 reveals a desperate and violent attempt to pursue freedom as a morally righteous reclamation of sovereignty in a volatile, disempowering and nonsovereign era” (14). The rise of the national security state, then, is less about security than a reflection of a new discourse of political freedom, which represents a desire for more freedom in a historical conjuncture that has gone to painful lengths to strangle the life out of more democratic or just modes of political agency. Significantly, however, as Anker notes, there is a hopefulness here, insofar as there is (while certainly misguided) “a glimmer of a desire to challenge unfreedom” and, at the very least, “an intent to undo the oppressions that individuals often seem so willing to uphold” (19).
“Orgies of feeling,” Anker notes, is a term Nietzsche used to refer...